WASHINGTON — President Clinton has won general agreement from Britain and France on his proposal for air strikes in Bosnia-Herzegovina that are intended to break the siege of Sarajevo and help force a compromise settlement among the republic's three factions, Administration officials said Thursday.
Clinton's proposal goes well beyond his previous position that the United States would launch air strikes in Bosnia only to protect U.N. troops there, officials said.
But it still falls short of actually defending the estimated 380,000 civilians trapped in the Bosnian capital, a mission that U.S. and European military experts believe could only be accomplished by a large force of ground troops.
Instead, U.S. and European officials are trying to agree on the details of what one called "escalatory steps" that might help end the Bosnian war--and spare Sarajevo from falling to Serbian forces.
"Mr. Clinton's thesis . . . is that this military pressure is to push the negotiators, not to destroy either side," said French Defense Minister Francois Leotard, who met with Defense Secretary Les Aspin and other officials. "And we share it."
The aim, State Department spokesman Mike McCurry explained, is "how best to support the peace negotiations that are under way in Geneva and how to alleviate the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Sarajevo and other major population centers in Bosnia."
American, British and French officials said they do not want to launch widespread air strikes but hope that the mere threat of military action will prompt Bosnian Serbs to stop their attacks on civilians--and influence Bosnian negotiators in Geneva to compromise on a peace settlement.
But since the United States has issued similar warnings in the past without carrying them out, "they (the Serbs) will probably need some kind of demonstration to take the threat seriously," a senior Administration official acknowledged.
Even if the United States and its allies do carry out the air strikes, officials said the action probably would be limited to protecting humanitarian aid shipments into Sarajevo and other Bosnian cities--not defending civilian populations.
Britain is pressing for gradual implementation of the plan. But France has for months expressed a greater readiness to use force.